As Mainers scramble to keep warm in the icy weather that has gripped the state since Christmas, relief comes from a variety of sources.
In the York County town of Acton, a locally-funded program has come to the aid of several low-income elderly residents. One was a military veteran staying in the bathroom and trying to keep warm with an electric space heater. Another person hadn’t eaten for four days after spending the food budget on fuel oil, and a local couple ran out of both firewood and heating oil.
Town Administrator Jennifer Roux said Tuesday that a monitored account for the grass-roots Neighbors Helping Neighbors program is funded by private donations alone. It’s the kind of community resource that fills in when other programs fail.
“This is a time to reach out to people who may not qualify for other kinds of assistance,” she said.
At Eastern Area Agency on Aging in Bangor, a generous local patron recently donated 18 new electric space heaters, available on a first-come, first-serve basis to eligible households. The energy-efficient heaters can warm up a small area but are not a substitute for central heat, said Director of Community Services Tabatha Caso. The anonymous local donor asks only that recipients “pay it forward” with an act of kindness, she said.
On Tuesday morning, with temperatures in the low single digits, the Penquis Community Action program in Bangor had already gotten 85 calls for fuel assistance by 10:30 a.m., according to Jennifer Giosia, who oversees the agency’s housing and energy services division.
“It’s just been so cold,” she said. “If the requests stayed at this level, we’d run out of money.”
Penquis is one of several community-level agencies in the state that administer the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LiHEAP.
Standard LiHEAP applications can take six weeks or longer to process, she said, but the program’s Energy Crisis Intervention Program, or ECIP, can respond more nimbly. A typical one-time ECIP delivery to qualified Maine households is 100 gallons of fuel oil or a cord of firewood within 24 hours, she said. But the agency encourages people to sign up for regular LiHEAP eligibility, too, so they won’t get caught in a crisis again this winter.
At the Aroostook County Action Program in Presque Isle, Executive Director Jason Parent said the agency has seen a “huge spike” in requests for emergency fuel delivery, beginning in the week before Christmas.
“Even up here in Aroostook County, where we’re used to these cold temperatures, this prolonged period of cold weather is unusual,” he said.
Between federal LiHEAP and ECIP funds and a local “Helping Hands” account, the agency has been able to respond in most cases. But, like Giosa, Parent said the aim is to get low-income county residents signed up for the LiHEAP program, which can provide more assistance over the course of the heating season.
A phone message at Downeast Community Partners in Ellsworth, which manages LiHEAP in Washington and Hancock counties, said the fuel assistance request line was “extremely busy right now” before disconnecting the call. “Please try again later,” the message said.
LiHEAP is administered in Maine through the Maine State Housing Authority.
“We have plenty of money,” said Senior Director of Programming Dan Brennan.
In Maine, as in the rest of the country, only about 25 percent of eligible households apply for fuel assistance, he said.
“People should get right out to their community action programs now and apply,” he said.
A staff member answering the phone at Pine Tree Legal Services said the agency had received an unusual number of complaints this week about landlords not providing sufficient heat.
In Bangor, people who were living outside were provided with rent money from the city’s general assistance program, and one man living in an unheated space was provided with a hotel room for a few days until a safe alternative was available, said Community Services Manager Rindy Fogler.
“But any city building is open [during business hours] for warming, charging cell phones and so forth,” Fogler said.
If cold weather persists, the city may open a designated “warming center” for public use, she said.
Sgt. Wade Betters of the Bangor Police Department said some of the area’s homeless individuals drop by the station to get out of the cold.
“We let them warm up for an hour or so,” before referring them to one of the local shelters, he said.
Some individuals may not be welcome at the shelters due to previous bad behavior, he said, but shelters often try to accommodate them anyway, given the extreme weather.
The Maine Emergency Management Agency this week issued guidelines for avoiding hypothermia in drafty or poorly insulated homes or apartments. They include dressing in loose layers, wearing a warm hat and keeping at least one room warm. Consuming warm fluids and a balanced diet can maintain a healthy body temperature. Avoid alcohol, caffeine and nicotine, which can all cause heat loss. Some medications can make it harder to maintain body heat.
A similar message from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention urges Mainers to check frequently on neighbors who are elderly, ill or otherwise vulnerable to the dangerously cold temperatures. The Maine CDC also reminds Mainers that any emergency generator should be located outside and homes should be equipped with smoke alarms and a carbon monoxide detector.
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